“Oh, Very Young . . . “

What are your favorite 10 songs from the year you turned 16? Let me know in the comments. It’s re-e-e-aly hard to decide, right?

Me? The year was 1974. In order by Billboard ranking, if you put a gun to my head, I guess I’d choose:

    • 5 “Dancing Machine” The Jackson 5
    • 13 “Midnight at the Oasis” Maria Muldaur
    • 22 “Band on the Run” Paul McCartney and Wings
    • 24 “Time in a Bottle” Jim Croce
    • 44 “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” Brownsville Station
    • 51 “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” Steely Dan
    • 63 “Takin’ Care of Business” Bachman-Turner Overdrive
    • 64 “Radar Love” Golden Earring
    • 70 “Oh Very Young” Cat Stevens
    • 72 “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” Elton John
    • 79 “Tubular Bells” Mike Oldfield

Next question: What was the single most important thing to happen to you at age 19?

Me, easy. I met Jennifer. We’re still together 47 years later. [There’s no emoji good enough for that.]

True story: In 2010, at age 16, a boy named Kalief Browder was arrested and charged with stealing a backpack. His family was unable to raise the $3,000 bail, so he was sent to Rikers Island. On principle, he refused to plead guilty, so he was held for 3 years, awaiting trial, before the charges were dismissed. Released at 19 years old, he returned home and committed suicide.

That’s a summation. The details are messier, his earlier probation on the one hand, the hell of that jail experience on the other. But the central story remains: At 16 he was arrested for something he didn’t do, he refused to plead guilty, he spent the next 3 teenage years jailed on Rikers Island, he was released at 19 for lack of evidence, and he went home and killed himself. He was Black.

Man, I got a lot of joy out of struggling to narrow that list of songs from age 16. Thinking about my high school years. Remembering how I followed Jenny around the restaurant where she was waiting tables the night we met.

BailProject.org

Review – The Road to Ruin – a Zombie Card Game

The Road to Ruin banner image from DriveThruCards

With my study table still cleared off, last night Jennifer sat down with me to play The Road to Ruin, a 1-4 player cooperative scavenger hunt across a zombie-infested cityscape. It’s published by Hero Forge Games.

This little review follows my usual practice of “What’s it about? What’s good about it? What’s bad about it? What’s your recommendation?” learned from Space Gamer magazine in the 80’s.

Overview

We have the DriveThruCards version, which comes as a deck of 122 cards; you supply a pawn or other token for each player, and “dice cards” are included. The Hero Forge website lists that version and a Game Crafter one with tokens and dice.

Game prep consists of laying out the 25 location cards facedown in a grid, with a different layout in each of five scenarios. One location card, the “Safe House,” your starting point, is left face up. Then 18 zombie encounter cards and 6 “Supply Items” are shuffled together, with 1 each dealt to the facedown locations. Each player selects one of the Survivors, a few weapons and items are shared among them, and play begins.

Your goal is to find those Supply Items and return them to the Safe House—the Radio Call scenario being an exception, in which you must find the “Lookout” and “Airport” locations, then find and take the “Radio Transceiver” to the first 5 Supply Items to the second. The rest of the zombies go to a facedown encounter deck.

Play time is listed as 30 minutes, though I think Jenny and I took about twice that.

The Good

The game marvelously captures the theme of things like, “The Walking Dead”: the desperate search for supplies from locale to locale, encountering zombies, while you’re wounded and low on ammunition. This isn’t a game of heroically killing zombies left and right; it’s about desperate survival.

In part, that ambiance is conveyed by the graphic design and mood text, but the mechanics are what seal the deal.

Items are scarce, and when used, many go out of the game permanently. Hand size is limited. The survivors are fragile. And the zombies don’t go away when defeated. Battle at a locale doesn’t discard the zombie card even if you win, it just means you escaped the fight alive. Losing means you escape wounded. Five wounds and you’re dead.

Moving to a locale takes a turn, battling any zombies there. Scavenging the locale takes another turn, battling those zombies again. And the zombie combat levels range from frightening on some cards to truly brutal on others. There are no easy encounters. Combat is a matter of rolling 2d6 and hoping to match the zombie value, with weapons (if you have one) allowing a die to be rerolled. Sometimes weapons break and go out of the game; some weapons require ammunition. Medical supplies are fleeting.

The rules for all of this are simple enough to fit on 7 playing cards, with 4 of those 14 faces devoted to scenario layouts and conditions.

And to top things off, 2 of the cards are deck organizers, making it easy to keep track of which draw and discard decks are which.

The Bad

There’s very little to complain about.

I do wish the rules cards were numbered, to keep them organized and easier to reference.

More importantly, I wish the rules were more careful to use capitalized game terms instead of less specific, lowercase one. The most troublesome example being that the term “supply cards” actually refers to “Supply Item” cards. It wasn’t until after playing a scenario and feeling “That was too easy” that I realized the items even had an identifier in the upper right corner, with most of those being merely descriptive, like the game’s flavor text.

And though the two organizer cards are handy, even handier would have been to label the card backs of each deck with its category.

One weirdness about the game is that while it includes a “dice” deck so you don’t need actual dice, it doesn’t seem aware of the strategic way that can change play, if mostly high numbers have been used so far, making it obvious that combat is about to become deadly, or vice versa. A direction to shuffle those cards after each battle would help.

Finally (though it’s hardly worth noting and has no discernable effect), the threat deck actually consists of 26 cards instead of 25.

The Augury

If you’ve read through this review, it probably means you like zombie games, in which case I predict you’ll enjoy this one a lot.

It’s one of the best I’ve encountered in the genre, fun solo, and even more fun with others.

Highly recommended!

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash
How many times in your life have you heard the words, “Dante’s Inferno”? How many times “Dante’s Paradiso”? I’m guessing the ratio leans heavily toward Inferno.

How familiar with those two works are you? This isn’t a Literature test. I’m just guessing that if you’re familiar with either, it’s probably the Nine Circles of Hell. And I’m willing to bet the Nine Circles of Heaven are a complete mystery.

It’s not just you, Inferno has been the subject of plays, movies, even a video game. By comparison, Paradiso is shunned.

And it’s not just Dante. William Blake said of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God and at liberty when of Devils and Hell is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

It doesn’t take a poet to realize that writing about hell is easy, “at liberty,” and writing about heaven is difficult, “in fetters.”

I believe there’s a key to human nature and human history in that dichotomy. Our race’s origins are in savagery, “nature red in tooth and claw.” Civilization is something we build despite it. Nobility is something we strive for. We work to be better individuals, we labor at it, because selfishness, fear, and hatred are so easy. We strive to transcend our animal nature.

I’m vegan. I’m not asking you to be. But I’m weary of hearing the line, “It’s only natural for humans to eat meat.” Of course. I know as well as you that for our race, killing and eating other animals is natural. No argument there.

It’s natural.

But is it necessary?

Help I’m Concise

Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@manuschwendener?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">manu schwendener</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/glass-of-water?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a>
The song, “Help I’m Alive” by Metric is a piece of minimalist genius.

At first glance, it seems simply sparse, in keeping with the moment of panic we feel before stepping on stage. “If I tremble, they’re gonna eat me alive. If I stumble, they’re gonna eat me alive.” So few words to capture so much terror.

“Can’t you hear my heart beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer.” That repetition itself is a pulse, with a sparsity casting me back to the breathless “animal in a cage” inability to think beyond the moment before the mike goes live.

But here are the words of minimalist lyrical genius that have been flowing around my brain cavity since first hearing the song: “Hard to be soft, tough to be tender.”

I’m a poet by nature. (Game design is formalist poetry.) And I find myself stunned at the perfection of those eight words. Where do I start?

First, each phrase takes two utterly contradictory words and melds them into a singular truth. That accomplishment alone fills me with wonder. Especially given that they’re simple one-syllable words.

One-syllable except for the last, intentional, two-syllable word. Listen to the rhythm of the line, the one-syllable “soft” forcing a caesura that makes you hear each phrase as independent. Then the two-syllable “tender” leading rhythmically to the next line.

And grammatically the phrases are identical. An open oyster shell.

Beyond all that, there’s the poetic consonance and assonance of those four adjectives. “Soft” and “tough” are virtually mirror images.

Just, wow.

Until today, I’d been so captivated by that line that I missed how structurally parallel the next one is: “Come take / my pulse, / the pace / is on a runaway train.” Those pulsing iambs. The one-vowel-sound difference between “pulse” and “pace.” The fluidity of the last phrase with its trio of “n’s.’

This is minimalism. A glass of water so clear you notice neither glass nor water in the act of drinking.

This is the difference between brevity and concision. The division between short and art.

And it’s why I so hate the catchall phrase, “rules lite,” in game design.